Trapped in an unhappy geopolitical marriage

The US and Pakistan still need one another - but the US should adopt a more realistic approach towards its fickle ally.

    The US cut its support to the Pakistani military by almost a third this year, and funding will not be restored until 'certain steps' are taken, say officials [EPA]

    Depending on one's perspective, the news was good or bad; but perhaps it should have been neither.

    When word spread this past weekend that the US would be suspending, and in some cases permanently curtailing, some $800m of the $2.7bn in military support funds due to Pakistan this year, reactions among informed Americans fell along predictable lines. Many, like a friend of mine close to the US military, expressed satisfaction: "Finally," he said. "We're putting the screws to them."

    To these observers, the US has acquiesced too long in a gross pattern of Pakistani betrayal and double-dealing, gladly accepting our assistance while bolstering our enemies. Attempts at forging an open-ended strategic relationship between the US and Pakistan have failed, they say. It is high time we put our relations back on a transactional basis, withholding assistance "unless and until we see certain steps taken", in the recent words of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

    Others expressed apprehension over the potentially toxic combination of public demands and equally public sanctions, designed to force Pakistani compliance. To them, this announced withholding of funds appeared as yet another waypoint in a rapidly descending spiral of events, from the Raymond Davis affair, to the bin Laden raid, to Pakistan's expulsion of US military trainers, to accelerated US drone strikes, threatening to lead ultimately to a rupture in ties, from which both sides would suffer, perhaps incalculably.

    Current expressions of US pique, such observers suggest, not only overlook areas of continued effective cooperation, but threaten to accelerate the internal unravelling of a nuclear-armed state of great intrinsic importance to US security interests.

    And yet, it seems to me, neither side is necessarily correct, and both have been overtaken by events. Perhaps the announced curtailing of funds could support an alternative model of US-Pakistan relations.

    US policy in South Asia is in transition. America's ill-starred experiment in Afghan nation-building is coming to a sure, if not exactly rapid, end. President Obama has left no doubt on this account. And while he may claim that the US is conducting its orderly military drawdown from a position of strength, the end state in prospect in 2014 will hardly reflect the ambitious goals which the president himself announced for Afghanistan at the start of his administration in 2009.

    The Afghan Taliban will be anything but defeated, and most of the rural areas in the Pashtun South and East will be effectively outside the control of the central government in Kabul - US and NATO investments in the Afghan National Army notwithstanding. Indeed, by then, the country may well have reverted to the ethnic civil war which characterised much of the 1990s.

    One should hasten to add that these readily foreseeable events need not spell disaster for US interests in the region. A modest US presence in Afghanistan should ensure the survival of a rump Afghan state, while providing a base for limited but effective counter-terrorism forces and the means to foment an Afghan-led anti-Taliban insurgency - which may well make incremental progress over time. Indeed, such a US-aided anti-Taliban insurgency is underway in some rural areas already, even if it is currently called by different names.

    US demands are unrealistic

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    Despite the shift in US policy, however, its demands of Pakistan are caught in a time warp. Pakistan has anticipated all along that US patience and stamina in Afghanistan would be limited, and has hedged its bets accordingly.

    Now, having validated Pakistan's fears, the US acts as though that should make no difference, and continues to demand that the Pakistanis sweep the Afghan insurgents and their local allies from North Waziristan. With Pakistan's forces heavily engaged elsewhere against local militants in the tribal areas, it is unlikely, to say the least, that Pakistan will willingly sustain heavy losses to earn the enmity of Afghan militants who will eventually, and perhaps sooner rather than later, find safe haven on the other side of the Durand Line.

    The US transition in Afghanistan will inevitably generate effects on Pakistani policy calculations, and the US should not expect otherwise. It would be far better for US policymakers to take their own actions into account in assessing the rational limits of their aspirations for Pakistani policy. And if the US transition to a sustainable posture in Afghanistan is far slower than it should be, that is certainly not going to change the Pakistani assessment as to what the future eventually holds in store.

    This is not to suggest for a moment, however, that Pakistani calculations of their national interest in the context of a US transition are likely to be wise ones, or that new disputes between the countries will not arise. Militants currently devoted to the destruction of the Pakistani state are not likely to become less so as the US presence in Afghanistan is reduced.

    And present Pakistani tolerance of the Afghan Taliban and associated groups is not likely to garner their future cooperation in opposing Pakistani militants seeking safe haven on Afghan soil. Where the threat of cross-border militancy is concerned between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the future the proverbial shoe is likely to be on the other foot.

    Paradigm shift needed

    As the US and Pakistan negotiate this changing balance of forces in the region, the old categories - strategic partnership versus transactional relations - should no longer apply. The very idea of a true strategic partnership between Washington and Islamabad was never realistic, any more than the US' recently abandoned, over-ambitious aspirations for a modern, centralised Afghan state.

    The differences in American and Pakistani perceptions of their respective national interests are too vast, and the deficit in Pakistani national leadership too great, to permit any such open-ended strategic relationship. In South Asia, sad to say, the past exerts an inexorable pull on the future.

    On the other hand, the notion of a transactional relationship, where pressures or inducements from the US side are expected to produce behaviour on the Pakistani side which would not otherwise occur, is no more applicable. As has been amply demonstrated, Pakistan is going to do what Pakistan is going to do, and US "leverage" will only have marginal effects.

    Instead, the US would be far better advised simply to support those policies it approves, and withhold support for those it does not, making clear its reasoning in both cases, and encouraging similar frankness from the Pakistani side. The partial curtailing of US military aid to Pakistan, if conducted rationally and with quiet candour, could be the first step in establishing an equally contentious, but far more healthy, and ultimately more stable relationship between the two states.

    Each side is condemned to continue dealing with the other. Their respective interests will not permit them to do otherwise. For the two parties in this bad marriage, divorce is not an option. But if they are wise, they will learn, to the maximum extent possible, to air their operatic disagreements openly with each other, but behind firmly closed doors, and secure in the knowledge that nothing is certain but disappointment.       

    Robert Grenier retired from the CIA in 2006, following a 27-year career in the CIA's Clandestine Service. He served as Director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) from 2004 to 2006, coordinated CIA activities in Iraq from 2002 to 2004 as the Iraq Mission Manager, and was the CIA Chief of Station in Islamabad, Pakistan before and after the 9/11 attacks.

    Earlier, he was the deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, and also served as the CIA's chief of operational training. He is credited with founding the CIA's Counter-proliferation Division. Grenier is now a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is Chairman of ERG Partners, a financial advisory and consulting firm - and speaks and writes frequently on foreign policy issues.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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